This year was another year with significant time spent in airplanes. Perhaps not as much as some, but it was quite a bit of time above the ground for me. Wherever I go, a camera of some sort is along for the ride. Especially on airplanes… I’ve been shooting images out of planes for years now going back to some mapping work I did for a company years ago by hanging out of the back of a open rear door of a cargo plane or out the side of a small aircraft. These days, its typically out the side window of a commercial airliner, though occasionally, I get another interesting perspective.
If you are gonna be stuck in an airplane for any stretch of time, you could read (almost always a good idea) or you can look out the window and make some interesting photographs. If you are going to “shoot out the windows” so to speak, I have a 11 tips on getting decent photographs from the air.
1) Fly an airline that will not hassle you for your camera. For me, this is Delta. American Airlines and United Airlines are non starters given their bans and hassling of people with cameras. So, it was interesting that some airlines, including American Airlines and United Airlines are now banning photography which is a sure-fire way to get me to not fly them. Delta is my airline of choice, so my hopes are that they never resort to this sort of absurdity. From the looks of it however, they are currently running promotions for the best photo taken under 10,000 feet, so the future of photography on Delta looks promising.
2) Sit next to a window obviously… There are some aircraft with larger windows and bigger windows are typically easier to photograph out of (this is the image above shot through the window). Typically windows in aircraft are kept small to increase the structural integrity of the plane. The bigger the window, the less structural integrity given traditional construction techniques. That said, if you are fortunate enough to fly in a Gulfstream, they have *really* big, nice windows. The Boeing 787 Dreamliner also has larger than average windows because of the modern composite construction techniques used to assemble the aircraft. These windows are also placed higher in the aircraft, so that you are not scrunching down to see through. This is actually one of my complaints it seems on just about every Airbus I’ve flown on… The windows are set too low in the fuselage. Duncan has flown on the new A380 though and it might have higher up windows… Duncan?. Also, Delta is not actually taking any delivery of 787s until 2020 which seems crazy, but…
3) Wear dark clothing for fewer reflections in the window and turn out the reading lights. This is especially important in low light or in the dark. Also, you can use a lens hood to isolate the opening of the lens from the surrounding ambient light, though the distance from the inner plastic window from the outside pressure window which can be very difficult to overcome. Those double paned windows on planes really can accumulate reflections, so the better job you do at isolating the light, the fewer reflections you will have.
4) Sit well aft or forward of the wing to get a better view of the ground without the wing getting in the way. However, sitting forward of the wing will let you see with less turbulence which will create distortions in the images, unless you are looking for those disturbances like the low pressure vortex in the above photo… That said, I’ve been pretty happy with a few wing shots… here and there when stuck in the back.
5) Seats with a little more room make for more comfort when sitting next to the window and obviously give you a little more wiggle room when trying to change a lens or even just sit. Fortunately, the seats with a bit more room are often more forward of the wing and don’t always have to be 1st class or business class. Those extra 3 inches in economy comfort really do make a difference as having just a bit more room means being able to respond a bit quicker when something interesting might fly past, sometimes closer than you may expect.
6) If you have a camera with a built in flash, turn that sucker off. It will only destroy your images, particularly when the light is most interesting like early morning before sunrise and evenings as the sun is setting. If you are lucky, you might even see the Earth’s shadow if you are at the right altitude, geographic location and time. Also, flashes going off will also irritate your fellow passengers, particularly if they are trying to sleep in the wee hours when the light is most interesting…
7) Pay attention when you are on the ground. On occasion, you can see interesting things like one of the Boeing Dream Lifters which, it turns out I’ve seen several times this year. In years past, I’ve seen rare and interesting aircraft, people doing funny things (like a plane side basketball game) and a different perspective on the people that work to make your flights happen on time and safely.
8) Often when planes are banking early and late in the flight, you can get better shots of interesting things on the ground. On some aircraft with more than one level, (the Boeing 747 and the Airbus 380), the top deck like on the 747’s windows have a more sharply slanted angle away from the ground. Getting shots of the ground from these windows will be more difficult. Not impossible, but more difficult. Related to the above photos (CIA Headquarters): If you are in a plane where you can talk with the pilot or give them instructions, ask them to bank so you can capture images of things on the ground. You’d be surprised at how stable a photographic platform can be, banked over with a little opposite rudder to hold your altitude.
6) Budget airlines clean the planes less often which means dirty windows and they also seem to do less window maintenance and polishing. True, I have to shoot though dirty or scratched windows on all planes from time to time, but in general, it *seems* cleaner on some of the non-bargain airlines. If you have a bad window or a scratched window, use a longer lens and a wider aperture to optically “get past” the bad part.
7) Ice can build up on your window the longer you are at high altitude, so some of your best (or clearest) photography will take place in the earliest phases of the flight. That said, ice in the window can be pretty sometimes.
8) The kind of camera you use really does not matter unless you are going for really low light shots. That said, cell phone cameras, point and shoot cameras and mirrorless cameras have made some of my favorite images and an added bonus is that they make less noise than a DSLR with a mirror flapping around, especially late at night when other passengers are trying to sleep. Also, don’t be afraid to use image mosaicing or stitching to get a scene that will not fit in a single frame. There are some amazing views out there…
9) Related to 8: That funny little symbol on the top of your camera? The one with the circle and line going through it? That symbol shows where the plane of the imaging sensor for your particular camera is. The closer you can get that to the window, the wider your potential field of view will be which is a pretty good argument for some of the pancake lenses out there. This is also why sometimes your cell phone can be the best camera available for out the window shots as the imaging plane can be placed very close to the window, far closer than just about any other imaging device.
10) Post processing: When you are higher up, you are shooting through more scattered light. Short wavelengths of light are scattered more than longer wavelengths which gives images a more blueish tint and consequently explains why the sky is blue. That can work for some images like the one at the very top of this post, but you can also color correct for this, by boosting red and green and pulling in your black point. The problem here is that for black and white photography, the problem is even more pronounced. Shooting RAW here is a huge advantage as you have more control over the individual color channels. Pulling back on the blue channel can really help out. If your goal is pure black and white, you can help yourself out by using a yellow, to orange to red filter to help with contrast and push your blues through to black. Also, while not a post-processing technique, use of a polarizing filter can really help up there to remove reflections from plane surfaces and from the surfaces of bodies of water.
11) Not many current cameras can autofocus with very little light, though sometimes you can help them out by using a center focus spot, so the camera is only trying to focus on one discrete point rather than match the overall scene which is the default setting on many cameras. Though, sometimes at night, the best thing to do is switch your camera into manual focus mode. Even many point and shoot cameras have a manual focus mode. Set it to manual and focus on infinity.